Siting, aging infrastructure will be top challenges for New England energy infrastructure

THE NEW ENGLAND COUNCIL on Tuesday hosted a virtual event to dicsuss the challenges and opportunties presented by the American Jobs Plan for regional energy infrastructure. Pictured from top left are Mark Kalpin, chairman of the New England Council energy and environment committee; Dan Dolan, president of New England Power Generators Association; Emily Reichert, CEO of Greentown Labs; Judith Judson, head of US strategy for National Grid; and Bill Ackley, president of gas operations for Eversource Energy.

PROVIDENCE – New England needs to strike a balance between acting fast to take advantage of an expected windfall of federal funding and taking time to develop a long-term strategy for bringing its energy infrastructure into the future.

So agreed panelists in a virtual discussion on Tuesday organized by The New England Council. The hour-long event was one in a four-part series focused on specific infrastructure areas poised to receive funds under President Biden’s $2.3 trillion American Jobs Plan.

“We have to be nimble here,” said Bill Ackley, president of gas operations for Boston-based utility company Eversource Energy. “We may not know the best solution, but we have to know the path we’re on.”

Eversource is committed to a decarbonized future – partnering with Danish energy developer Orsted A/S on more than 4,000 megawatts of offshore wind projects across the region, including Revolution Wind in Rhode Island. Yet the move to a decarbonized future and transition cannot come at the expense of safety and reliability, Ackley said.

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Nor can existing gas, electric and transmission line infrastructure cannot be forgotten in the race to meet ambitious carbon reduction goals through renewable energy sources.

New England has some of the oldest energy infrastructure in the country – think cast iron and unprotected steel circa 1800.

Updates to the “backbone” of the existing power grid are critical to making use of these new sources of wind, solar and hydropower, said Judith Judson, head of U.S. strategy for National Grid. Jackson referenced a study by ISO New England which said New England will have to curtail the slew of offshore wind farms coming down the pipeline if it doesn’t make massive overhauls to its aging electricity transmission lines.

Electricity infrastructure upgrades will also play a part in the anticipated increase in electricity reliance as cars and heating systems move to electric alternatives.

In addition to aging infrastructure, New England also faces challenges in siting: where new renewable energy projects, transmission line expansions and more can be built.

Panelists stressed the need for “alignment” among stakeholders, alluding to the complex and often disputed nature of proposals for offshore wind farms and other large-scale projects which have drawn pushback from residents, fishermen and other community groups.

Such challenges are not impossible to overcome, evidenced by the “thousands of megawatts” of new energy – both conventional and renewable – added to the regional grid in the last decade, according to Dan Dolan, president of the New England Power Generators Association.

“It’s hard, and potentially more expensive here than other parts of the country but it can absolutely be done,” Dolan said.

That the Biden administration is throwing its weight behind what, until now, has been state and region-led efforts, only furthered Dolan’s optimism.

So too, did new technology and innovation, such as projects being developed by the 120 early state companies participating in Massachusetts-based Greentown Labs climate technology incubator program.

Emily Reichert, CEO of Greentown Labs, highlighted these innovations not only for their environmental benefits but also their economic implications in terms of jobs. 

“This is an opportunity not only to advance our goals to fight climate change…but it also has the opportunity to create hundreds of thousands of green jobs,” Judson agreed.

Nancy Lavin is a PBN staff writer. You may reach her at Lavin@PBN.com.

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